From amnesia to language death

Something traumatic happened to me last weekend. (Okay, now that I have your sympathy in advance …) An elderly couple, relatives on the spouse’s side, came visiting, unexpectedly. (No that isn’t the traumatic part, not even for them.)   Which is something I really dread (unexpected visits I mean) for there’s no saying what ghastly state of untradition I could be in on any given day. Anyway, to get to the trauma. In the course of our conversation, which was in Telugu, I used the word “recession” which my guests did not understand, and for the life of me I couldn’t recall what the word for it in Telugu is. Not that I don’t know; I come across it often enough on TV and the Telugu newspaper I read. It was just one of those frustrating tip-of-the tongue moments of amnesia; and right after they left I remembered.  A traumatic state of temporary amnesia that set me off brooding thus: will our mother tongues survive the onslaught of English?

Technically, a language dies  when its last speaker dies. Or, as David Crystal* puts it, when its second-last speaker dies because then the last speaker has no one to speak to.

It is this dramatic situation of the last speaker of a community that Crystal uses as the theme of a play that he wrote in 1998, Living On. Here’s an extract from that play illustrating the state of mind of the last speaker of a community, as he talks to a linguist recording his language:

When I wake up in the morning my head is no longer full of the sound of the rhythms of my language, as once it was. Your language is there now, making me think in strange ways, forcing my thoughts into strange rhythms. I have begun to forget how it was. Every day, I feel my language slipping away. The words which were my life are slowly leaving me. They are returning to their home, where they were born. I could no longer tell our stories well.

Sounds chillingly familiar, doesn’t it?

Maybe it’s just my frazzled, frenetic, feminine mind that’s jumping from amnesia to language death. But the fact is that language death is a very real possibility for languages dominated by another, especially if that dominance is in the economic and educational spheres. Lest you think I’m crying wolf –

According to this piece in Outlook, India tops UNESCO’s list of countries having the maximum number of endangered dialects. The US follows closely behind with 192, and then Venezuela with 147.

And here’s the source for those statistics – Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing, first published in 1996.

Also, Ethnologue’s report on endangered/nearly extinct languages:

What the alarming statistics suggest is that of the nearly 6,900 languages in the world, half may be in danger of disappearing in the next several decades.

Most people are either unaware or frankly don’t care that so many of the world’s languages are dying. As Crystal points out, while most us are aware, to a greater or a lesser degree, of the crisis facing the world’s bio-ecology, only a tiny proportion have any awareness at all of the crisis facing the world’s linguistic ecology. Yes, languages have come and gone, but, again as those statistics show, it is the scale, the rate at which languages have been dying since the second half of the 20th century, that is unprecedented.

The rise of dominant world languages has had unmistakable consequences for minority languages; while English is clearly implicated here, it is not the only culprit. Spanish in South America, Arabic, Russian and Chinese in Asia have replaced many local languages in Asia and South America.

Ultimately,  why should we care? Why don’t we just let languages die and allow one language to remain, thus solving the world’s communication problems in one fell swoop?

Because if  language is perhaps the most important behaviour that makes us human, then every language is a repository of some form of human wisdom.  As Crystal puts it, quoting Ezra Pound: ” No single language is capable of expressing all forms and degrees of human comprehension.”

Your language is you.  So it’s self-preservation, really.

* Crystal, David:

The Language Revolution. Polity Press, 2004

Language Death. Cambridge University Press, 2000



  1. Adam Jacot de Boinod said

    Dear Sir

    Please forgive me emailing you in such a seemingly cold fashion. You seem to share my love of language and I wondered if you might like a mutual link to my English word website:

    with best wishes

    Adam Jacot de Boinod

    (author of The Meaning of Tingo)

  2. Adam:

    Welcome. And this blogger is a she. 🙂

    Always good to meet a language lover. And your website is truly interesting.

  3. […] with animals in ways that they are capable of doing with members of their own species. From amnesia to language death – 09/11/2009 Something traumatic happened to me last weekend. […]

  4. Adam Jacot de Boinod said

    Sorry Søren

    Shall we link ?


  5. gaddeswarup said

    A hotch-potch response. Technology, economy etc have so thoroughly entered our lives that local languages have to adopt new words even to carry out everyday conversations. Even if all adopt English, local dialects will develop. Perhaps some combination of Telugu and English will develop as earlier combinations of Telugu and Samskrit developed. There is a site called telupadam where they try to find equivalents of English words which are often used
    Some years ago, Andhra Pradesh Press Academy published patrika padakosam:

    which is downloadable.
    Before I knew about this, I persuaded a friend to put online ‘Adhinikavyavahara Kosam’ by Budaraju Radhakrishna:
    (recssion:ఆర్ధిక మాంద్యం)
    I guess that people will use what they need and what they can. Hoever, poor will have to depend on others for various transactions . In places where service delivery is poor and a lot depends on connections, this is a problem.
    I was reading a book on Madiga poetry in Telugu, following up a post of Kuffir and it is in Telugu without English words in the few pems I read. So, different sections seem to be speaking different versions of Telugu and perhaps what prevails will depend on economic forces.

  6. gaddeswarup :

    Many thanks for all those links. [Yes, I know the phrase for recession. 🙂 Interestingly some news channels use the English word, while others (like ETV) use the Telugu one.]

    Fluency is not just a matter of knowing the word, or a source for it, but how frequently you use it, no?

    Agree with you about the different versions &c. Perhaps my latest post will be of some interest to you.

    PS: Note- you and I are communicating in English. 🙂

  7. anu said


    While it appears that the world is evolving towards some kind of homogeneity with people using few major languages, it does not stop there, does it? English has newer dialects, like African American English has its own grammar and user community that is growing not dying, I tried to read bedtime stories for my son from books exclusively written in AAE -it feels like another language and it is beautiful, same with Spanish isn’t it? Plurality of languages will continue in new ways, I think. This is no consolation for the loss of older languages, but the process fascinates me.

  8. anu:
    Agree. That’s the thing about English. Any language that spreads, changes. And any language that changes, lives. On. And on.

    But it’s not quite so with, say, Telugu. Its domains of use are shrinking. But you’re right. It’s a fascinating process. Variation of the fittest? 🙂

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